Mark has written us a window into a world that has always fascinated me. In the early 1900’s, the section of 28th Street known as Tin Pan Alley was a hub for songwriters and music publishers. From one building to the next, writers were plugging their songs, and a new, distinctly American musical sensibility was starting to be formed. At the center of this musical progress was Irving Berlin, the most successful songwriter of his (and perhaps any) time. But, as The Tin Pan Alley Rag asks us, could there have been a Berlin without a Scott Joplin before him?
These two iconic figures of the musical world seem, on the surface, to have differed in every possible way. Joplin grew up in Texas, coming from grandparents who’d been born into slavery. When his musical talents were recognized at a young age, he began to study the piano, eventually receiving a classical conservatory education. Joplin would be one of the first authors of ragtime, a musical genre that combined European and African rhythms into something utterly new. While hailed for his work, Joplin achieved only modest financial success, and some of his greatest music was not recognized until after his 1917 death.
Berlin, on the other hand, was a Russian Jewish immigrant with no musical training. Yet by the age of 23, he was a star in the world of music, as his catchy melodies and simple, straightforward lyrics caught the attention of the nation. Berlin never learned to read music, but he wrote 1500 songs over the course of his long life (he died at 101 in 1989) and created songs that were as familiar to his own generation as they are today.
Both men were outsiders, but they dealt with that feeling in divergent ways. For Joplin, it was important to push American music further, achieving greater artistic work than ever before. For him, a legacy was not made up of a few hit songs, but of a movement. Berlin, however, was a man with a commercial mind. A hit song meant a lot of money, and Berlin had found a way to tap into the minds of the masses, making a pretty penny along the way. He had scraped his way out of poverty, and Berlin had no intention of going back, even if that meant putting aside greater musical aspirations.
There’s no way to know if Joplin and Berlin ever really met – it’s possible, though not entirely likely. But in The Tin Pan Alley Rag, we get to wonder what it might have been like if Joplin had had the opportunity to look the next generation in the eye and make an argument for doing more with his god-given talent than writing a few catchy tunes.
A huge part of what makes this imagined meeting spring to life on stage is the music that is interwoven with the lives of the men who composed it. From Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” to Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Play a Simple Melody,” you can literally hear the course of American music taking shape across the keys of their pianos.
With Stafford Arima directing at the Roundabout for the first time, and Michael Boatman (from Roundabout’s Master Harold…) and Michael Therriault portraying Joplin and Berlin, respectively, I know that we have a great team in place to bring this play and the men behind its music to life.
I look forward to seeing you at the theatre!
2008-2009 Season, The Tin Pan Alley Rag